I recently posted an article about the health benefits of practicing an anti-inflammatory, and in the interest of expanding upon this post, I will be continuing to offer more information to support you in your practice of eating for better health. This post is about the health benefits of turmeric. Turmeric (curcuma longa) has long been used as a powerful anti-inflammatory in both the Chinese and Ayurvedic systems of medicine, and is comparable in effectiveness to some of today’s pharmaceutical medicines. You might know it best an ingredient in curry powder.
A member of the ginger family, turmeric is traditionally cultivated in India and China, as well as other countries in Southeast Asia. Its rhizome (root) has been a staple of both culinary and medicinal use in the East for thousands of years. It is a popular topic of current Western medical research, including studies examining its efficacy in treating osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and other autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, type-II diabetes, lung infections, hepatitis, Alzheimer’s disease, digestive disorders, parasitic infections, skin disorders, and, not least of all, cancer. And this is not a conclusive list – thousands of articles detailing the health benefits of turmeric (and curcumin, its main therapeutic constituent) have been documented in the National Library of Medicine’s open access database of biomedical literature, available here – search “turmeric” or “curcumin.”
In terms of its medicinal uses, turmeric is considered an inflammation modulator. Over the last decade, medical research has shown that inflammation plays a significant role in many of the diseases that are prevalent in our modern culture. All of the health conditions listed above have been proven to have an inflammatory component. The type of inflammation that often presents in these conditions, is chronic and typically “silent” (low-level), and it is this type of inflammation that is believed to be a key factor in disease-related morbidity. The number of health conditions medical research has confirmed as having an inflammatory component is quite extensive, and ongoing research into other conditions is seemingly endless. As more becomes known, medical researchers are also directing their studies to include analysis of preventative therapies geared towards the reversal and attenuation of symptoms, and the therapeutic use of turmeric is one of the most promising.
Turmeric is an excellent addition to an anti-inflammatory diet. It is the natural source of curcuminoids, a group of antioxidant compounds that are the active therapeutic ingredients in turmeric. There are three that are typically extracted and used in supplement form – they include curcumin, demethoxycurcumin and bis-demethoxycurcumin. Of the three, curcumin is the one most researched and isolated for use in supplements. Curcumin is what gives turmeric its orange color; the brighter and fresher its color, the more curcumin your turmeric contains.
Curcumin only constitutes .6-5% of turmeric powder by weight –one reason for this variance is that as an antioxidant, curcumin is a fragile compound – age, exposure to air, and light, will significantly decrease the amount of curcumin present in turmeric powder. Even at 5%, you would have to eat a lot of turmeric to gain the medicinal benefits of curcumin as reported in much of the medical research that we read about. One teaspoon of high quality, turmeric powder contains about 100mg of curcumin; recommended therapeutic levels of curcumin vary by health condition, but average around 1,200mg per day …you would theorectically need to eat about 12 teaspoons of turmeric. To get the medicinal health benefits of curcuminoids from a supplement is also challenging – it turns out that curcumin, in concentrated isolate form, is poorly absorbed by oral ingestion – you may only be absorbing as much curcumin as you would by eating whole turmeric.
So the question is often raised – which is better – whole turmeric or curcuminoid supplements?
Some manufacturers of curcuminoid supplements have added a compound called piperine, a pungent extract of black pepper that has been shown to increase absorbency of curcuminoid supplements, however, some individuals should use piperine cautiously. It is a potent inhibitor of drug metabolism, which means that it has the potential to increase blood levels of other medications that you are taking due to decreased clearance. Piperine is also contraindicated in cases of high blood pressure.
It must be noted that the bioavailability of curcumin in whole turmeric is also an issue. When cooking with turmeric, adding a pinch of whole black pepper will remedy this issue (and whole black pepper does not come with same cautions as its extract piperine). We also can’t forget that whole turmeric contains many therapeutic compounds outside of curcumin and the other curcuminoids that are researched medically and commercially marketed as supplements. It contains a bevy of health benefits that may not be popularly known or formally researched – but could thousands of years of using turmeric as a traditional medicine be wrong?
Although we tend to think of turmeric as a culinary spice, it is also an herb included in the Chinese medicine pharmacopeia. We call it jiang huang – which means “yellow ginger” – and it is whole turmeric that is used, not an isolate of curcuminoids. In Chinese medicine, it is traditionally used to eliminate blood stasis, promote the flow of qi, and relieve pain. It is often prescribed by modern day practitioners for its anti-inflammatory abilities (in formulas with other herbs). If you are struggling with an inflammatory condition, or a form of chronic pain, make an appointment with your Chinese herbalist to discuss where or not medicinal amounts of jiang huang are right for you.
In summary, turmeric is a smart addition to your diet, especially as a preventative medicine. (To learn more about practicing an anti-inflammatory diet, please download this guide.) For many of us, including a few teaspoons of turmeric per week in our cooking can be enough to glean its many health benefits (remember to add a dash of black pepper). And do remember, if you commonly use curry powder as your source of turmeric, it is only one ingredient of many, and may only make up about 10% of your spice blend. If you are lucky enough to find fresh turmeric (usually available at Asian groceries), you can work with it like ginger root; its flavor tends to be a bit sweeter and milder than ginger. Use fresh turmeric in recipes that call for dry, in a 3:1 ratio (fresh:dry); you can also steep the root and make a spicy tea with lemon and honey, and of course a pinch of pepper. For those dealing with inflammatory conditions, such as high cholesterol or arthritis, whole turmeric supplements may be more appropriate so higher dosing can be easily achieved. If you would like to try a curcuminoid supplement, make sure it contains some piperine for increased bioavailability.
Please note the following cautions for the use of turmeric (and its derivatives, curcuminoids) in medicinal amounts: Taking turmeric in medicinal amounts is contraindicated in pregnancy as it has the ability to stimulate uterine contractions and may cause miscarriage. Its safety for use while breast-feeding has not been adequately studied, so it may be best to not use it in high doses during this time. While turmeric is often indicated in digestive disorders, high doses are contraindicated in cases of GERD, gallstones, and bile duct obstructions; because it has the ability to stimulate stomach acid and bile production, it may worsen your condition. Medicinal use is also contraindicated with anti-coagulant drugs as turmeric in high doses is known to slow blood clotting; for the same reason, you should discontinue use two weeks before a scheduled surgery.
I hope you have found this information useful – please be in touch if you have any questions.
Jules Bogdanski, L.Ac.